We Begin in Grace, January 13, 2019

We Begin in Grace

Isaiah 43:1-7; Psalm 29; Acts 8:14-17; Luke 3:15-17, 21-22

Quarryville and Catskill United Methodist Churches

Rev. Catherine Schuyler; January 14, 2019

 

I have seen one, and only one, picture of my baptism. My parents are holding me, and my siblings are standing at their side in the front of the Bound Brook Congregational Church. That’s it. I was the youngest of four children; my mom doesn’t really remember which Sunday my baptism occurred, but the picture says it happened. That’s all there is officially for me to ‘remember my baptism and be thankful,’ as we are instructed to do whenever we celebrate the baptismal covenant. But remembering my baptism isn’t about recreating in my brain one particular event that occurred before I was a year old. It’s about remembering that I am baptized, claimed by God in Christ Jesus for life and love and grace and joy. Like Christ’s crucifixion, it’s a once-for-all-time occurrence. I am named, claimed, and unashamed. Jesus is mine and I am his. The words from the prophet Isaiah are words for me in my baptism and for you in yours:

But now thus says the Lord, … Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. 2When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you. Because you are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you.

This is the good news I remember when I remember my baptism and am thankful. That grace given to each of us is at the heart of our faith and our identity as Christians, especially as United Methodist Christians, because infant baptism is a core doctrine of Methodists since Wesley’s time. Basically, baptism is what God does for us, offering us grace and welcome into everlasting life. It’s not our doing; it’s God’s doing. Baptizing infants helps make that clear. I hadn’t done anything but cry a lot when I was baptized. That didn’t earn me God’s love, nor has anything else I’ve done since. God’s grace is God’s gift, to me and to every other baptized Christian. We all belong in the church because we are beloved of God. That’s our ticket of admission, God’s love for us.

 

Six weeks from yesterday, the United Methodist church will gather for an historic special General Conference about the question of human sexuality, specifically, about homosexuality. Forty-seven years ago, at the General Conference of 1972, there were changes made to the Book of Discipline; language was added regarding homosexuality. One statement said, “Homosexuals no less than heterosexuals are persons of sacred worth.” Another said, “The United Methodist Church does not condone the practice of homosexuality and considers this practice incompatible with Christian teaching.” Those two statements have proved to be difficult to hold together in tandem. There has been a discussion seeking to clarify and/or amend this language at each General Conference since 1972. The special Conference that meets in St. Louis in February has as its sole purpose that clarification.

 

Much has happened in our society’s understanding and experience of homosexuality in the last forty-seven years. In 1972 the medical community defined homosexuality as a malfunction of human sexuality, a disturbance, a sickness. A new authoritative resource for medical diagnosis, the DSM-3, was published in 1980; it removed any reference to homosexuality as an illness of any sort. In the last forty years many people have dared to speak out and claim their identity as gay or lesbian, naming in public what they had known about themselves for decades. As individuals came out, their straight friends and families began to realize that their sexuality wasn’t something to be afraid of, it was simply a part of who they were. Importantly, it became more and more clear that gay men and lesbians didn’t choose their sexuality; they simply owned it. They recognized and spoke clearly to others who they knew themselves to be, who God had created them to be.

 

All of these cultural developments happened in and through the church as well as in and through other institutions. Forty years ago there were only a few people who identified publicly as gay or lesbian and as followers of Jesus Christ. Today there are thousands upon thousands. I have a dear friend who speaks of coming out of the closet as a lesbian as her experience of being born again, that she didn’t know the truth and the depth of God’s grace until she had the courage to claim her whole self as God had created her to be. I am not gay, but I hear these stories and I trust the truth in them. I know that I didn’t ever choose to be straight, it’s just who I’ve always been. So I can make sense of someone who feels the same way about their own experience of their sexuality.

 

Part of the struggle in the church as the culture has embraced a new understanding of homosexuality is that scripture seems to speak of homosexuality as sin. That’s where the statement that it is ‘incompatible with Christian teaching’ comes from. Scholars of scripture will tell you that the equation of homosexuality with sin is not as clear as some think. Nowhere does scripture speak of homosexuality as a loving relationship between peers, yet that is how it is frequently practiced among Christians today. Translation is always challenging; it is especially so when dealing with cultural practices that change over the centuries. Wrestling with scripture in depth and discovering new understandings of what specific passages might be about is part of what has happened in the church over the past forty-seven years since 1972.

 

Given all of this, you begin to see the challenge that the special General Conference has before it. Our bishop has asked us to pray for the General Conference daily, from 2:23 to 2:26, the dates the delegates will be together. Pray for the NY delegates; pray for the delegates coming from all over the nation and all over the world; pray for the bishops and the leadership they will offer; pray for the presence and power of the Holy Spirit with them all.

 

This morning, I am remembering the good news about baptism. Every child we baptize we recognize as loved and cherished by God, called by God to serve the world with Christ’s love and compassion. Children who grow up and know themselves to be gay are still baptized, still beloved, still blessed and still cherished under that baptismal covenant we celebrated with them years before, that same covenant grace we claim for ourselves. We are still the church together with them, and with all the baptized, accepting together the freedom and power God gives us all to resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves and promising to serve Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, together, as the church. Our baptism wraps us in grace, together, to transform the world through God’s love. Friends, remember your baptism, claim the grace of God as your power in daily life, and love – love the world, love your neighbor, love your enemies, and love especially those who walk this way of grace with you, the baptized, the beloved, the church of Jesus Christ. Amen.

 

Isaiah 43:1-7

43But now thus says the Lord, he who created you, O Jacob, he who formed you, O Israel: Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. 2When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you. 3For I am the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior. I give Egypt as your ransom, Ethiopia and Seba in exchange for you. 4Because you are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you, I give people in return for you, nations in exchange for your life. 5Do not fear, for I am with you; I will bring your offspring from the east, and from the west I will gather you; 6I will say to the north, “Give them up,” and to the south, “Do not withhold; bring my sons from far away and my daughters from the end of the earth— 7everyone who is called by my name, whom I created for my glory, whom I formed and made.”

 

 

Psalm 29 (UMH 761)

1Ascribe to the Lord, O heavenly beings, ascribe to the Lord glory and strength.

2Ascribe to the Lord the glory of his name; worship the Lord in holy splendor.

3The voice of the Lord is over the waters; the God of glory thunders, the Lord, over mighty waters.

4The voice of the Lord is powerful; the voice of the Lord is full of majesty.

5The voice of the Lord breaks the cedars; the Lord breaks the cedars of Lebanon.

6He makes Lebanon skip like a calf, and Sirion like a young wild ox.

7The voice of the Lord flashes forth flames of fire.

8The voice of the Lord shakes the wilderness; the Lord shakes the wilderness of Kadesh.

9The voice of the Lord causes the oaks to whirl, and strips the forest bare;

and in his temple all say, “Glory!”

10The Lord sits enthroned over the flood; the Lord sits enthroned as king forever.

11May the Lord give strength to his people! May the Lord bless his people with peace!

 

Acts 8:14-17

14Now when the apostles at Jerusalem heard that Samaria had accepted the word of God, they sent Peter and John to them. 15The two went down and prayed for them that they might receive the Holy Spirit 16(for as yet the Spirit had not come upon any of them; they had only been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus). 17Then Peter and John laid their hands on them, and they received the Holy Spirit.

 

Luke 3:15-17, 21-22

15As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, 16John answered all of them by saying, “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 17His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”

21Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, 22and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

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